As a clinical psychologist working with lots of career-driven people—mainly in Singapore—I often come across the question of how the symptoms of anxiety they’re experiencing might affect their career progression.
This has become especially magnified during the pandemic, where more people have reached out for professional help with anxiety, stress, and worries.
Anxious thoughts can make everything feel more difficult. A small, mundane task can suddenly become an overwhelming monster that we procrastinate on for weeks. Feelings of anxiety can take a toll on every aspect of our lives. More often than not, that includes our work and career.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I worked with a client who felt anxious about working from home and not being as connected as before to his colleagues. These worries also affected his productivity and confidence, to the point where sending a simple email requesting collaboration on a project—something he wouldn’t even have thought about twice before—felt like a monumental hurdle.
These effects can pop up in our lives, even if we’re only experiencing some (early) symptoms of anxiety that might not warrant a diagnosis. Some of us are naturally more inclined to worry, and pursuing our dreams (whether in our career or in other aspects of our lives) can seem way too scary to even get started.
(Worried about the implications of a diagnosis? We addressed this issue here: “I have been diagnosed with a mental health issue, and I am worried my employer (current and future) will see it as a weakness. What should I do?”)
Sure, we’ve all heard stories of mental issues leading to some kind of creative passion—those “tortured” artists pouring their emotions into masterpieces. But the truth is, when we’re suffering from anxious symptoms, most of us will become more reserved, afraid, risk-averse, and try to avoid any form of real or imagined judgment.
The connection between anxiety and career
Imagine a colleague who just started a new position at your company. They might be fresh out of school and relatively new to the workforce altogether.
In their personal lives, they’re experiencing some symptoms of anxiety:
- They often worry about a variety of topics (Covid-19, their mother feeling a bit sick lately, their finances not being as sorted as they hoped at this age, a bit more tension with their partner lately, and so on),
- they feel on edge and more irritable than normal,
- they’ve had some trouble falling asleep in the past few months, and
- they have a hard time concentrating during the day.
Now, imagine this new colleague entering a new job—a stressful transition in itself—with all of these symptoms weighing them down. It might not be visible to others, but these symptoms of anxiety will lower their self-confidence, make them worry about new challenges instead of embracing them, and cause them to shy away from meeting their new colleagues and building connections.
Anxious thoughts and feelings and their effects can look different for each of us, but this is an example of how they can directly affect our work performance.
Generally, there are some visible and invisible effects to look out for:
The (often) visible effects
Absenteeism: Anxiety often affects our immune system and makes us more vulnerable to sickness and physical issues – from catching the flu to having back pain or poor sleep quality.
Presenteeism: Many of us—especially when working from home—don’t feel we want to or can take time off when we’re feeling sick. Instead, we keep working even though we’re not feeling well.
Poor productivity and missed deadlines: A common symptom of anxiety is procrastination and missed deadlines—suddenly feeling frozen, unable, or unwilling to get started even on small tasks.
A lot of times our anxious thoughts are built around this idea of perfection—holding the perfect presentation, writing the perfect report, and so on—and this vision can become so important that we’d rather not start at all than risk failing (and by ‘fail’ I mean do amazing work that’s just not ‘perfect’).
Strained relationships: Feeling anxious directly affects how confident we feel, meaning we avoid eye contact or social situations like team lunches or quick chats.
Each of these can also influence the other. Anxiety changes how you think, the decisions you make, and your overall performance.
For example, you might show up for as long as you can (presenteeism) even though your work quality has dipped (poor productivity), which in turn increases your worries and make tasks seem even more overwhelming.
Eventually, you might have to call in sick (absenteeism), delay the completion of tasks (missed deadlines) and resent colleagues who seem to be progressing faster in the company (strained relationships).
This is again an example of how visible effects can be connected, but they can look different for different people.
The (often) invisible effects
Social comparison and personalization: When feeling anxious, many of us get stuck in that comparison trap and start seeing our colleagues as threats. A colleague’s promotion is suddenly interpreted as our being inferior, even though their promotion may not be a reflection of our performance.
It is no surprise that comparing ourselves to others and personalising external situations negatively affects our mental health and wellbeing.
Over-magnification: Another pattern of thinking that often comes along with anxiety is exaggerating the problems in our lives and ignoring the positive aspects.
Anxiety around holding presentations or giving speeches at work is something I often work on with my clients. One time, for example, my client held an important presentation for the management board the day before our session. When telling me about how it all went, she described having messed up a couple of words at the beginning but quickly regaining control and presenting successfully. Her direct boss even complimented her. Despite the positive feedback as evidence of her great work, my client got stuck in the over-magnification trap—she was embarrassed about her initial mistake and felt that she’d ruined the whole project.
It’s a classic example of minimising her accomplishment. If my client hadn’t been struggling with anxious thoughts and feelings, she would have been able to think more realistically and recognize that most probably didn’t even notice the small imperfections.
Lowered motivation: Another often invisible effect of anxious symptoms is the lack of commitment to ongoing projects or motivation to start new tasks. Of course, nobody is always 100% motivated to jump into work, but the effects of anxiety can leave us with not even 1% left to reach our goals.
The flip side: How work and career progression affect anxiety
A lot of my clients are surprised when I ask them about the flip side—how their work and career might be affecting their anxiety. Most of us consider it a one-way street, but that’s not necessarily the case!
More often than not, our workplace culture and tasks can either magnify or diminish the anxious pitfalls and thinking traps outlined above.
Don’t get me wrong: just because you happen to have some anxious feelings doesn’t mean they’re automatically caused by your work or career. Generally, work can improve some mental health struggles and worsen others—it really depends on the situation you’re in and the support you have.
The two-way connections between mental health issues and career progression sometimes even morph into a vicious cycle.
For example, someone feeling stuck at their current job, with no clear path of progression and no short- and long-term goals to reach, might start feeling anxious and worried about their future. They might notice colleagues, friends or acquaintances posting their achievements and promotions on LinkedIn and get trapped in social comparison and personalisation:
“I’m just not good enough at my job. If I was smarter/faster/etc., I would be further up on the corporate ladder. Others must think I’m incompetent.”
Over time, these thought patterns can decrease their self-esteem, leading to strained relationships and poor productivity, which, in turn, decrease the chances of being promoted or considered for a new role.
The longer they are stuck in this situation, the worse their mental health might get. The more they struggle with their mental health, the harder it can be to take a risk and apply for a promotion or new position.
These connections don’t always turn into a vicious cycle. Even if they do, there are many different ways in which our work and career progression can affect our symptoms of anxiety.
Similarly, great workplace settings and good mental health practices can positively influence each other and become a virtuous circle!
The (often) visible effects
High demands: Anybody who’s worked in an understaffed team (even temporarily) knows how stressful a heavy workload can be. In my practice, I’ve worked with many clients whose anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues have been magnified by long working hours, tight deadlines, (unfinished) tasks, and the lack of time to take breaks.
Interpersonal conflict: It’s probably no surprise that being treated badly by colleagues or management or even being bullied at work will have a negative effect on our mental health and can increase those anxious thoughts and feelings.
The (often) invisible effects
Lack of recognition and justice: Being underpaid, under-recognized or otherwise not rewarded for our contributions or efforts can cause or increase worries and anxious thoughts over time. Unfair award processes, expectations of working overtime without compensation, or the lack of formal and informal praise can fuel them.
Uncertainty: In any context, uncertainty means we won’t be able to efficiently and effectively prepare for the future. That often contributes to anxiety. This could look like general job uncertainty (“Will I be laid off?”), uncertain organisational changes (“What will my work be like once my team is moved?”) or unclear expectations (“How do I succeed in this job or company?”).
Don’t get caught up in the wrong cycle
To summarise, here’s another example of the vicious cycle we can get caught up.
Imagine having a ton of work to do (high demand), the clock is ticking and your boss is pressuring you to complete the project by the end of the day (interpersonal conflict). Out of nowhere, a colleague comes by your desk and asks you to help them with a quick task.
It’s really just a five-minute job that you could easily do. If you weren’t tackling a high workload and pressure from your boss, you would have gladly helped out and strengthened your connection with this colleague.
But these circumstances have negatively affected your worries and triggered some anxious thoughts.
Instead of helping your colleague, you tell them to go away and ask someone else. Going forward, your colleague might not think of you too highly or reach out to you with exciting opportunities in the future (strained relationships and missed opportunities for career progression).
Again, these connections don’t always turn into a vicious cycle or downward spiral either. Great workplace settings and good mental health practices can also positively influence each other and become a virtuous cycle.
I once worked with a client who was extremely anxious about applying for a promotion, even though he was more than qualified for the position. It took many sessions over a few weeks, but he finally felt confident enough to apply and… he was hired! From that moment onwards, his need for support from me was noticeably reduced. When I followed up with him, he shared that he felt like a weight had been lifted. This promotion gave him the evidence he needed to be confident and believe in his skills, which greatly reduced his anxiety symptoms.
It goes far beyond this article to describe how we can overcome anxious feelings and worries, but it’s not only on us to keep an eye on our mental health and be happy and productive employees. It’s also important for companies to build healthy workplace cultures that support us and help us overcome struggles.